Thursday, March 1, 2012



The Late Hon Dr. Njenga Karume

By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
March 1, 2012

He has in life as in death been described as a man who literally rose from rags to riches or; should we say from dust to gold? This is the man Kenyans would bury at his rural home in Kiambaa in Kiambu County a week after his death..

At the age of 83, Njenga Karume had seen it all. He witnessed the Mau Mau uprising without taking part. However, as a young man, he was definitely 23 years old and of fighting age when Kenyatta and the Kapenguria Six were arrested on the night of October 20 1952.

Having come from a poor background, Karume didn’t have the luxury of going to school like his age mates Mwai Kibaki and John Michuki even though he was later to join their club once they returned from Makerere and Oxford.

With bare literacy, Karume had to devise his own school to compensate for what the colonial government failed to give him. However, just before he passed on, one local university honored him with a doctorate degree in recognition of his relentless determination to better himself and support thousands of fellow members of his community.

As a young man growing up in Kenya under Kenyatta’s regime, I started hearing Karume‘s name as the chairman of the GEMA monolith. Rumor had it that GEMA was so powerful and wealthy that it was about to open its own banks.

Compared to other ethnic associations such as Luo Union East Africa, Abaluhya United and Akamba Union, Karume’s GEMA was in a class of its own. It had voice, clout and cash. More importantly, it had the ear of the President at the time. It was even rumored that President Kenyatta and his entire GEMA cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and heads of various government institutions such as Kenya Commercial Bank, National Bank and the Central Bank were all members of GEMA and Karume was their chairman.

What we did not understand was how a man who did not even finish primary education could have the guts to be chairman of an organization with some of its members such as Dr. Njoroge Mungai, Mwai Kibaki, Dr. Julius Kiano, Charles Njonjo and Jeremiah Nyagah whose education had taken them to faraway lands such as Makerere, London and North America.

I first came across Njenga Karume in 1974 at Ngwataniro High School in Nakuru that was built by farmers who belonged to Ngwataniro land buying company then controlled by the late Kihika Kimani. Having been expelled from the University of Nairobi that year for rioting against the introduction of university fees, I took refuge in Nakuru with my cousin who was a District Inspector of Schools.

One day on one of his rounds inspecting private schools, he took me on this whirlwind tour of the district as he often did. This morning, we went to Ngwataniro High School that was one hell of a complex. In my life, I had never seen a school with gates resembling the Roman Empire colosseum gates.

As we approached the administration block, a tall and lanky man with protruding teeth approached our car. He was Kihika Kimani the proprietor of this giant complex. As soon as I was introduced to him, he didn’t wait for my cousin to finish. He instantly offered me a job to teach there as long as the university remained closed

Being the school of a local KANU kingpin, it was scheduled to be officially opened by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and we, the bona fide founding teachers; were to be introduced to Jomo on that occasion.

As we lined up to be introduced to President Kenyatta, some of the school’s board members, Njenga Karume among them also joined the President in shaking our hands.

Thirty two years later, I had to bump into Njenga Karume in an aircraft. We were both going to Addis Ababa for different assignments. At that time he was the Defense Minister in Kibaki’s government. What shocked and surprised me was his choosing to travel economy class that made him sit next to me. However, since I knew him better than he knew me, I chose to introduce myself to him.
Following that introduction, he engaged me in a relaxed conversation all the way to Addis Ababa until he was whisked away by Kenya’s diplomats in Addis Ababa.

As chairman of the GEMA community, Karume was a key figure of numerous land buying companies in the Rift Valley. Ngwataniro was just one of them. With cash to acquire vast tracks of arable land in the Rift Valley and finances to develop those farms, it was inevitable that Karume and the likes of Kihika Kimani would grow extremely wealthy just ten years after independence.

Although under Kenyatta, he was already a nominated Member of Parliament, his influence in terms of who got elected started spreading in Central and Eastern provinces where GEMA communities resided. And parts of Rift Valley that were occupied by the GEMA community followed this pattern.

It was therefore not surprising that during the 1974 general elections, he convinced Kenyatta’s inner cabinet to ask  Hon Babu Wood of Nakuru North to step down for Kihika Kimani while Wood would still go to parliament as a nominee.

However, there was one hitch. Despite this little problem having been sorted out, another young man called Koigi Wa Wamwere had chosen to contest that seat against the wishes of the elders.

At the launch ceremony of the Ngwataniro High School, elders conspired to seal Koigi’s fate. They in their speeches informed Kenyatta that there was one young radical who thought he was better than all the leaders of Nakuru and had chosen to oppose Kihika Kimani.

When Kenyatta stood to address the gathering; he asked the crowd, “Koigi ni kitu gani?” And the crowd roared back, “Ni dudu!” Then Kenyatta sealed Koigi’s fate declaring that “Kama ni dudu, basi tutamsiaga kama dudu!”

Two years later, Njenga Karume would find himself in very discomforting circumstances. He had joined a group of politicians that would later be known as the Change The Constitution Group.

Among his comrades in this new political plot were Kihika Kimani, Njoroge Mungai, Paul Ngei and a number of the Kenyatta inner cabinet that  feared  that if the constitution was not amended,  a non-Kikuyu like Moi would ascend to power to their disadvantage. Had it not been for Charles Njonjo, they would have pressed on with the motion in Parliament.

Beyond stopping them in their tracks, Njonjo also intended to press charges against them for high treason because they had imagined the death of a sitting president. Had it not been for their closeness to Kenyatta, Karume and his comrades would have ended in prison for life. Kenyatta overruled Njonjo on that one.

Soon after Kenyatta died, Moi abolished all ethnic associations including GEMA. However GEMA continued to operate as a welfare organization and custodian of Kikuyu cultural values. However, as is typical of a seasoned politician with financial influence, he found his way in Moi’s government where he even served as an assistant minister between 1978 and 1991 December when he together with Mwai Kibaki and John Keen resigned from KANU to form the Democratic Party. At that time, it was strongly believed that he was the financier of the party.

However before decamping from KANU in 1991, he had a year earlier moved a motion in parliament to amend the constitution to allow for multiparty politics in Kenya. It involved removing Clause 2a that had earlier outlawed any other party except KANU.

He remained faithful to Kibaki and DP for close to ten years but bolted to rejoin KANU and support Uhuru Kenyatta against Kibaki in 2002. However when Uhuru lost to Kibaki, he found his way into the Kibaki government where he served first as Special Programmes Minister in the Office of the President then later as the Defense Minister again under the Office of the President.

He died four years later after losing his Kiambaa seat to Stanley Githunguri.
In his last days, he was a strong supporter of Raila Odinga against the very man for whom he abandoned Kibaki to support in 2002.

That was Njenga Karume; the man who switched political alliances depending on the circumstances of the day. His social and business priorities took precedence over personal loyalties.